It’s Sunday in May, which means a Holly Jahangiri story. Thanks, as always to the real Holly Jahangiri, who allows me to use her name for my favorite fictional librarian. The Holly stories are set on the planet Llannonn, the main setting of my currently out-of-print sf/cop/farce, FORCE OF HABIT.
The End of the Sentence
by Marian Allen
Head Librarian Holly Jahangiri of the planet Llannonn’s Council City’s largest Living Library raised her head from her monitor. One didn’t become a respected curator and house mother for two dormitories of Living Books without developing acute instincts, not to mention hearing.
There it was again: a stealthy shuffle on the carpet outside her office door.
“Yes?” she called. “Can I help you?”
The answer was a hollow chuckle rising to a sob.
The door opened, and a man with cheeks as hollow as his laughter stood dramatically in the doorway. He wore a black suit of clothes in one of the many styles of the planet Earth. His face was pale and wan; his eyes, haunted.
“Please,” he whispered. “Please. I’m sorry. Make the call.”
She made the call.
Justice on Llannonn, it has been said, is a house with three rooms: Remorse, Atonement, and Recompense. The disheveled man who slumped in Holly’s visitor’s chair had committed one of Llannonn’s most appalling crimes. It had been in all the papers.
On Llannonn, as the public service posters had it, “Courtesy isn’t just a good idea; it’s the law. The man with the giant economy-size bags under his eyes had thought he was above that law. He had painted his house an ugly color, even after the neighborhood association had objected. He had played his music at a high volume, with the bass cranked up so high it loosened the fillings in people’s teeth for blocks around. He had spit on the sidewalk. Worse, he hadn’t been sorry.
His neighbors had clamored for his arrest and execution. The magistrate, though, had been compassionate and enlightened, and had instead sentenced him to public service until such time as he learned his lesson and apologized.
When Holly had been promoted to the position of Head Librarian, she and her friend District Criminal Investigator Pel Darzin, the chief peace officer of Meadow of Flowers Criminal District in Council City, had devised a program of public service centered on her library. Miscreants could work off their debts to society by serving as Living Books: people who had memorized texts – in this case, fiction written in the past of the planet Earth. The convicts soon learned that discourteous books didn’t get checked out. Boredom alone drove them to improve their attitudes. Some sooner than others, they all eventually repented of their crimes and were released. Many of them stayed on, and most others returned for the annual reunion.
She called the DCI now.
When she had made her report and had switched her monitor to the rear-facing camera so Darzin could see the man’s drawn visage for himself, Darzin said, “I’ll be right over.”
“Set me free!” The Collected Works of Poe’s voice rose to a shriek. “For the love of God, Inspector!”
Darzin let himself into the office, prodding a young man before him. The young man slouched and kept his hands in his pockets when he was introduced, and Holly didn’t doubt that she was looking at her Collected Works of Poe’s replacement.
The Collected Works of Poe rose and looked the young man up and down. “It is I,” he said. “I! I! Can I not see myself in that sullen visage? Is it not like looking into a mirror, right down to the scowl and the sneer? Yes! I’m looking at myself, myself of the past, come to haunt me!” He loosed a howl of maniacal laughter that would straighten the hair of a curly-haired pratty.
The young man’s hooded eyes widened.
Darzin nudged him and said, “That’s you, my lad. He’s going to teach you his text, and then he’s done his time. You’ll take his place.”
The young man shook his head. “I didn’t realize. Please, I don’t want to be like that.”
“You should have thought about that when you were having your fun, shoving people in line and making fun of their haircuts.”
“No! No! I’m sorry! I’m really, really sorry!”
Darzin was not a cruel man, but the law was the law. “I’ll report your remorse,” he said, “but you still need to atone and pay society back for the harm you’ve done. If I’m any judge of character, I’d say you’ll be ready to rejoin your family by the time you’ve learned your text.”
The young man sank into another visitor’s chair, his face already as ghastly as that of The Collected Works of Poe.
That book fixed a burning gaze on Darzin. “Am I free, then? Truly?”
“As soon as you’ve taught yourself to your replacement.”
The Book embraced Darzin and wept.
When the sixth edition of The Collected Works of Poe had led the seventh edition out of the office, explaining, as he went, how completely sane and rational he was, Darzin sat in the visitor’s chair the Book had vacated.
“That one was a tough nut to crack,” he said. “But I think the younger one will reform easily.”
“Could be worse,” Darzin reminded her. “Remember #4? Isn’t he the one who closed Parlormaid Tambar Miznalia into the linen cupboard with a stuffed animal on her head?”
Holly shuddered. She had had to request a raise for the Parlormaid, and had had to buy stuffed animals for all the other books out of her own salary.
“I’ll see you to the door,” said Holly, suddenly shy.
But, in the hall, they were intercepted by Parlormaid Tambar Miznalia, looking more disapproving and harried than usual.
“You’re needed in the men’s mess hall,” she said. “And I do mean ‘mess.’ The Wodehouse books are having another food fight, and I’m not cleaning it up.”
Holly and Darzin hooked thumbs in formal farewell, though they used a hint more pressure and lingered half a breath longer than courtesy dictated.
Darzin said, “I have a feeling I’ll be back for that youngster before long.”
“You needn’t wait until then,” said Holly.
From the mess hall came a crash followed by gales of laughter.
A Librarian’s work is never done.
MY PROMPTS TODAY: Seventh Generation, Holly Jahangiri, Pete’s hapless and hopeless romanticism
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